With sharks, bugs, plants and things that go bump in the night (at the campsite) firmly covered, we thought we’d help you to curl your toes, chill your blood and make those tiny neck hairs stand on end with a more inclusive — yet no less terrifying — list of films in which Mother Nature takes on a villainous, and often murderous, role.
While some of our picks feature various forms of rampaging wildlife, we were also on the lookout for exceptionally frightening films that take place in the remote wilderness. These are scary movies that take full advantage of the eerie atmospherics and unsettling sense of isolation that only the deep, dark woods can provide. Because, as we all know, after the sun goes down, the great outdoors begins teeming with serial killers, demonic spirits and bloodthirsty critters. Aside from coulrophobia (fear of clowns), nyctohylophobia — the fear of being in forests or woodlands at night — is perhaps the most horror movie-ready phobia out there. A few of our picks truly play into this most primal of fears.
Our list for wilderness- and wildlife-centric horror films is just a primer. In fact, there’s an entire subgenre dedicated just to animals-run-amok movies. So please, add to this list in the comments section and check out our previous roundups of natural horror films.
“The Birds” (1963)
A terrifying nature-run-amok film presented by none other than the Master of Suspense himself, “The Birds” is well worth revisiting (or watching for the first time). That is, of course, if you’re not a raging ornithophobic. And if you’ve never seen it, please do treat yourself to Alfred Hitchcock’s deliciously tongue-in-cheek short “lecture” that served as the film’s official trailer.
One of the most curious things about “The Birds” is that Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren, playing the heroine in a movie about a small coastal California community under attack by villainous winged wildlife, went on to establish herself as one of Hollywood’s most outspoken animal rights activists several years after completing the film. However, Hedren’s animal rights work hasn’t directly been extended to the avian community, perhaps because of lingering on-set trauma or because of the fact that, for a while there, her own home was filled with some mighty big cats.
* * *
“The Blair Witch Project” (1999)
In the brilliant found-footage creep-fest “The Blair Witch Project,” filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez transform an otherwise ordinary stretch of woodland (in this case, Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, Maryland) into one of the most nightmarish landscapes in the history of horror cinema without even trying.
These woods aren’t dressed up for the occasion with eerie lighting, fog machines, CGI monsters or props (save for the cairns and creepy five-pointed stick figures dangling from the trees). This is Mother Nature at her most familiar, naturalistic, reassuringly generic — woods that perhaps resemble somewhere where you’ve hiked, explored, camped, fished and, just like the film’s trio of doomed student documentarians, found yourself completely and utterly lost.
* * *
“Day of the Animals” (1977)
Why be stalked and terrorized by just one species of animal when you can be stalked and terrorized by a whole assortment of them — a grizzly bear, a mountain lion, wolves, German shepherds and a bunch of birds of prey — all at once?
Welcome to “Day of the Animals,” a campy, multi-critter take on the Mother Nature-goes-berserk sub-genre spawned by “Jaws” in the mid to late 1970s (see also: “Orca,” “Piranha,” “Grizzly,” “Alligator,” “The Swarm,” “Nightwing” and others). In addition to gifting the world with a scene in which a shirtless Leslie Nielsen wrestles a bear in a thunderstorm, “Day of the Animals” offers a serious (anti-hairspray?) message: If we don’t tread more lightly on our fragile planet, solar radiation brought on by a depleted ozone layer will cause all forest animals living at an altitude above 5,000 feet to go bonkers and kill us all.
* * *
So that’s what the fox says?
While difficult to classify “Antichrist” as a horror film, this typically tedious, troubling and technically stunning offering from Denmark’s most beloved/despised cinematic enfant terrible, Lars von Trier, is indeed scary — and incredibly stressful. Following the accidental death of their young son, a mourning couple (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreats to a cabin in the woods where they proceed to do terrible things to themselves and each other. The isolated sylvan setting provides plenty of sinister atmospherics: eerie mists, acorn storms, enterprising ticks and, most famously, an anthropomorphic, self-disemboweling fox that provides “Antichrist” with its most oft-repeated line. However, it’s not nature (“Nature is Satan’s church,” insists Gainsbourg’s witchcraft-obsessed character) that’s the most terrifying aspect of this controversial art house shocker, but the deterioration of the human mind.
* * *
“The Evil Dead” (1981)
Never mind that there’s one very angry demon trying to escape from the cellar or that your possessed girlfriend is tied up in the woodshed awaiting dismemberment by chainsaw. It’s the woods that are home to the most terrifying — and evil — thing of all. In the woods is where it watches, and waits.
The quintessential “cabin in the woods” genre film, “The Evil Dead” has spawned sequels, a remake, countless imitators and one clever homage-paying horror mash-up. Not one of these films has managed to make the woods — or a single tree — look quite as menacing or malevolent. Filming on the cheap in a secluded area outside of Morristown, Tennessee, director Sam Raimi employed a number of inventive and super-low-budget camera tricks to bring his misty, murderous forest to life. Come for the fountains of blood and buckets of gore. Stay for the high-speed demon-cam tracking shots.
* * *
While Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster about a very large fish certainly deserves to be on any list of nature-centric horror films, we just couldn’t resist instead sharing the trailer for this ridiculous movie from just a couple years earlier concerning antagonistic (but not killer) frogs and a host of other more deadly critters.
Writes Eric D. Snider for Film.com: “For someone eager to see a movie in which lazy, rich, drunken Southerners bicker with one another and are systematically bumped off by swamp fauna, however, ‘Frogs’ is extremely satisfying. And for someone eager to see all of that, and to be bored in the process, ‘Frogs’ is a masterpiece!”
* * *
Certainly not to be confused with a decidedly less harrowing release of the same name, this nasty little survival thriller from Adam Green (“Hatchet”) marries the mounting dread of “Open Water” with the toe-curling grossness of “127 Hours.”
While human error is to blame for the truly awful predicament presented in “Frozen” — being marooned high above the ground on a ski lift for days as a pack of wolves circle below — it’s the great outdoors that gets to play villain in this 93-minute stress-fest that allegedly prompted a few fainting spells when screened at Sundance. As far as the young cast of snowboarding strandees is concerned, Shawn Ashmore was eliminated by flesh-eating flora in “The Ruins,” Kevin Zegers was butchered by a hillbilly mutant in “Wrong Turn” and Emma Bell lost a big chunk of her neck to a zombie in the first season of “The Walking Dead.” Which one of them, if any, will survive the Mount Holliston ski lift?
* * *
“Long Weekend” (1978)
You better treat Mother Nature with respect or else. While there are plenty of both pre- and post-“Jaws” nature-strikes-back-themed horror films out there, it’s somewhat rare that you find an entire ecosystem — not just a specific group/class/species of animals be it birds, bears or bats — terrorizing humans en masse.
In the “Long Weekend,” a hateful, bickering Aussie couple prone to littering and other acts of carelessness and disregard toward the natural world get their comeuppance and then some during a remote coastal getaway. A well-acted and legitimately scary psychological thriller from Down Under, the tagline of “Long Weekend” pretty much says it all: “Their crime was against nature. And nature found them guilty!”
* * *
As Hollywood would like us to think, the Appalachian Mountains are teeming with mystery and intrigue — and a healthy dose of murder, madness and mayhem. Although filmed in Southern California, “Pumpkinhead,” a “grim fairy tale” directed by the late special effects make-up maestro Stan Winston (“Predator,” “Aliens” and numerous collaborations with James Cameron, Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg), uses the Appalachian backwoods setting to appropriately menacing atmospheric effect.
With a plot revolving around a murderous, humanoid creature that’s been awakened from its slumber in a local pumpkin patch by a witch at the instruction of a vengeful, grieving father whose young son was accidentally killed by a group of teenagers, “Pumpkinhead” hasn’t aged all that well. Regardless, it’s certainly better than Winston’s other stab at directing, the Anthony Michael Hall-starring “A Gnome Named Gnorm.”
* * *
“The Ruins” (2008)
A semi-effective and exceedingly gory mash-up of three somewhat tired horror movie standards (killer plants, flesh-eating infections and exotic vacations gone real bad), after watching “The Ruins” you may want to pack a decent supply of topical iodine solution — and plenty of extra sunscreen — before setting off on your next tour of archeological ruins in Mexico.
The antagonists in “The Ruins,” based on a novel by Scott Smith, are a particularly mean-spirited strain of predatory, squeak-emitting jungle vines that happen to have an appetite for toothsome young tourists. Just think of them as a distant cousin of Audrey II without the musical chops. And unlike many nature-themed horror films where the bad guys only come out at night, much of the most gruesome scenes in “The Ruins,” a tale of chapped lips and amputated limbs, take place directly under the blistering and unforgiving Mexican sun.
* * *
Dim-witted, rock-eating monsters of a certain age and dramatic Northern European landscapes collide in “Trollhunter,” a tremendously fun and funny found-footage fantasy film from Norwegian writer/director André Øvredal.
While nature itself doesn’t play a villainous role in “Trollhunter,” the craggy mountains, majestic fjords and dense forests of Western Norway provide a stunning backdrop in this faux-documentary about a group of at-first-skeptical student filmmakers who tag along with a grizzled, government-employed poacher of folkloric beasts as he makes his rounds. Seriously, you’ll either have nightmares for weeks or find yourself longing to visit the Norwegian countryside after watching this one. The scene where the dreaded, three-headed Tusseladd emerges from the darkness of the forest is as thrilling as it gets.
* * *
“Wrong Turn” (2003)
Sort of an arborous take on the “The Hills Have Eyes” in which a family of hideously deformed mutant cannibal baddies are transported from the Nevada desert to the backwoods of West Virginia, “Wrong Turn” makes use of its ominous sylvan setting quite nicely. (Ontario filled in for the Mountain State for the production.)
Like many a horror film before it, “Wrong Turn” plays into our fears of being lost — and hunted — in the woods and doesn’t offer anything incredibly groundbreaking in terms of storytelling. But with buckets of gore, some thrilling action sequences including one set high up in the trees and villains (Three Finger, Saw-Tooth and One Eye) with faces (courtesy Stan Winston) that only the mother of a trio of inbred mountain men could love, “Wrong Turn” is a cut — or slash, rather — above the rest.